Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Book of Negroes

"The Book of Negroes is a work of my imagination, but it does reflect my understanding of the Black Loyalists and their history...", so wrote Lawrence Hill in his opening lines of the description of his book.

The Book of Negroes is the story of Aminata Diallo, in her own narrative, upon the closing years of her life, and the dawning of the nineteenth century,  as she puts pen to paper to give an account of her years.

Aminita Diallo was born in the West African village of Bayo, brutally taken at the age of eleven and strung together with other slaves, forced to walk for months, to endure and witness indignities almost beyond description, as they made their way towards the sea, where she was then taken by ship to South Carolina to work on an indigo plantation.

To be perfectly honest, I was actually amazed that a man wrote this book!  The story of Aminita Diallo will have to be yours to read, because to write here of her story would rob you of your own discovery of this book.  What I will say is that it is quite brutally graphic in some places, and also honestly graphic in others, particularly in regards to the changes that are occurring as this young girl matures into a young woman, both physically and emotionally.

Geographically the book takes the reader from West Africa to the Southern United States, to Nova Scotia and then back to the coast of Sierra Leon and then to England.  I was fascinated with the discovery that the actual 'Book of Negroes' is one of the largest single documents about black people in North America up until the end of the nineteenth century.  It details the names and basic information of more than 3,000 black men, women and children, who during the American Revolution, after serving or living behind the British lines, sailed from New York City to various places throughout the British Colonies.  What fascinated me, was the fact that most of those 3,000 were sent to Nova Scotia and after landing there began to settle in Halifax, Sydney, Weymouth and other areas.

Why on earth, as Canadian children, were we never taught this in school?

Included in this book were references to William Wilberforce who was the only British parliamentarian in the abolitionist committee for the ending of the slave trade.  I remember reading the autobiography of John Newton, the man most noted for writing the hymn 'Amazing Grace', and it was William Wilberforce that sat under the preaching of Newton and was influenced by Newton to pursue the parliamentary action of abolishing the slave trade.

While I was reading of the atrocities that had occurred aboard the ship bringing Aminita to America, my mind immediately went back to the life of John Newton, who himself was a slave trader and was a perpetrator of many the horrible acts that were committed upon the lives of the black slaves.  John Newton was tormented by his sin and after committing his life to Christ wrote...

Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see...

The slave trade was abolished in Britain in 1807, in the United States in 1809 and not until 1834 in Canada and the rest of the British Empire - and it wasn't until 1865 that slavery of any kind was officially abolished.

Although the story of Aminita Diallo is a fictional one, the historical account is not.  I actually believe that what is not written in this book is even more horrific than what is written.  I have heard some say that this book is in the category of many of the considered great works of literature - I didn't really get that at all... but who am I to say?  As I read, I was not thinking of it as a book of literature, but rather more of an historical account that opens up a dark place in history that many have tried to keep hidden, it shows the depravity of the human condition and the beauty of it as well and puts a face on it.  

There were many characters that stood out to me for one reason or another.  One was Solomon Lindo, a white Jewish man - and Daddy Moses, a blind, black preacher.  There were many others, Aminita included, but I will let you read and discover them, and others, for yourself.

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